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By Dave Umhoefer July 28, 2014

Scott Walker says Trek makes 99% of its bicycles overseas

With his popularity among conservatives still high, and a poll showing his support dropping among independents, Gov. Scott Walker is working to dampen liberals’ enthusiasm for his main Democratic rival in the November 2014  election.

Here’s part of his second campaign TV ad  hitting Mary Burke’s former employer, Wisconsin’s Trek Bicycles, for building products overseas:

"Mary Burke is trying to sell us on her experience at her family business, but she forgot to mention they make 99% of their bikes overseas, in places like China, where her company has outsourced jobs for years," a narrator says. The spot adds that "Burke’s company  makes almost all their bikes overseas."

In her campaign, Burke has highlighted her former role as a manager at Trek, the company founded in 1976 by her father, Richard, in Waterloo. She has said that Trek, as a company trying to compete globally, does what it can to manufacture bikes in the United States and makes more bikes in America than any other manufacturer.

The latest Walker ad cites an piece from Jan. 9, 2011, flashing what looks like a headline that reads: "Over 99.5% Of The Bicycles That Burke’s Company Produces, Are Made Overseas."

So that’s where we’ll start.

The piece, a question-and-answer feature with a Trek spokesman, does not mention either Mary Burke or a figure of more than 99.5%.

It ran under the headline "Trek Corporation Committed To Wisconsin" and highlighted Trek’s employment of nearly 1,000 people in the state at three facilities and another 800 around the world at the time.

The story does not call Trek Mary Burke’s company, as Walker’s ad characterizes it.

In one of her own campaign videos, Burke calls Trek "my family’s business" and one she says she helped grow into a worldwide force.

But Burke left Trek’s employment in 2004, and its board in  2005, though she still owns stock in the private company.

So the Walker ad seemingly is off to a rough start.

But that OnMilwaukee piece did contain two numbers that allow a reader get a feeling for the balance of overseas versus domestic production at Trek, at least as of 2011.

In the piece, Trek official Eric Bjorling is quoted as saying that Trek makes roughly 10,000 bikes a year in Wisconsin. Later in the story, in response to a separate question, he said that Trek sells about 1.5 million bikes a year around the world.

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We should note that Bjorling characterized the 10,000 figure as a rough estimate, saying it’s "almost impossible to give a number" because production is seasonal and demand-based.

Nevertheless, doing the math yields an answer of 99.33 percent built overseas. So that works in Walker’s favor.

We asked Trek company spokeswoman Marina Marich to comment on the ad and the number it presents, and she responded in part, "As a privately held company, Trek doesn’t disclose specific production data." A Burke campaign spokesman simply referred us to Trek.

Industry observers say that broadly speaking, the 99 percent figure makes sense.

"The bottom line is there is no major bicycle production in the U.S.," said Marc Sani, writer and former publisher of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News. "It left when Schwinn went to China in the 1980s. That was the beginning of the end."

Trek and other U.S.-based bicycle companies have little or no choice but to build product in cheaper venues overseas in order to compete globally, Sani said.

Trek has two manufacturing facilities in Wisconsin -- one in Waterloo and one in Whitewater. Overseas, it builds in Germany, Holland and China. In 2011, CEO John Burke said Trek’s sales were more than $800 million.

Trek contends, without providing numbers to back it up, that it manufactures more bikes the United States than any other bicycle company and is the only "major" bicycle company that stills manufactures product in the United States.

As PolitiFact Wisconsin reported in January, Burke and Trek also have declined to document her claim that  while at Trek the European division she oversaw went from $3 million to over $50 million in sales."

Jay Townley, a bicycle industry consultant based in Wisconsin, noted that because U.S. production is so low, the numbers are volatile.

But even if it was 30,000 instead of 10,000, the overseas production share would be 98 percent, which still sounds a lot like the Walker ad’s phrasing that "almost all" of Trek’s bikes are made outside the United States.

Our rating

Walkers’ ad says that Trek Bicycle "makes 99% of their bikes overseas," and it puts Mary Burke at the center of responsibility by saying Trek is "Burke’s company."

The best available numbers, from Trek’s own mouth, lend credence to the 99 percent claim, as do the best educated guesses by industry analysts. So the ad’s main thrust is correct.

Calling Trek "Burke’s company" is somewhat problematic, though. She held a management position there and still owns stock, but she left a decade ago and seven years before the 2011 story that yielded the 99 percent figure.

On balance, we rate the claim Mostly True.

Our Sources

Friends of Scott Walker, campaign TV ad, "Not So Much,"July 22, 2014

Interview with Marc Sani, Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, July 23, 2014

Interview with Jay Townley, Gluskin Townley Group LLC, July 23, 2014

Email interview with Marina Marich, spokeswoman, Trek Bicycles, July 23, 2014

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "Burke, Walker trade charges over Trek’s outsourcing of jobs," July 18, 2014

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Scott Walker says Trek makes 99% of its bicycles overseas

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